Policymakers | General Education

Turning the page on textbook selection process

VENTURA COUNTY STAR   |  April 27, 2010 by Beverly Kelley

If journalists pound out “the first rough draft of history,” who writes the final version?

I certainly hope it’s not those folks who churn out high school history texts. These guys produce little more than rambling, turgid assemblages of “too much information,” which, weighing in at 3-5 pounds, numb both the minds and backs of young scholars.

Don’t take my word for it. If you have school-age offspring, just ask them.

If you prefer to check with a respected expert instead, consult Diane Ravitch. Her 2004 “Consumer’s Guide to High School History Textbooks,” sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, evaluated 12 widely used United States and world history texts.

“The books reviewed in this report range from the serviceable to the abysmal,” observed Fordham President Chester E. Finn, Jr. “None is distinguished or even very good.”

Furthermore, “because textbook publishers bend over backward not to offend anybody or upset special-interest groups,” he added, “so much in today’s history texts is simplified and sanitized.”

The result, Finn noted, “is fat, dull, boring books that mention everything, but explain practically nothing.”

The bottom line: A collective loss of the American memory when it comes to the story of us. Year after year, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education agonizes as it reports that young people in America are, to an alarming degree, “historically illiterate.”

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni commissioned the Roper Center to survey college seniors from the nation’s “best” (according to the annual rankings of “US News and World Report”) colleges and universities. Four out of five or 81 percent of seniors from the top schools received a grade of D or F on an exam drawn from basic high school curriculum questions.

Why? According to a recent poll, more than half of American high school history teachers did not major or even minor in history. Lacking expertise, they must rely on the text or at least on “the instructor’s version” in order to keep up with the class.

Those who did acquire a university sheepskin in history, however, with no say in selecting the textbooks used in their classes, teachers charged with imparting essential historical information about the nation or the world, find themselves shackled to tomes that are simply inadequate.

Not only do these volumes fail to grab the attention of students in any compelling way but in the process of being whitewashed to win over state adoption committees, they fail to accurately portray history as well.

When Robert Harris, the writer of best-selling historical thrillers, was asked to address history teachers tormented by student ennui, he advised: “We should restore the importance of the narrative when we approach the subject. The human brain latches onto stories, not disjointed facts.”

“Students also have to have empathy with historical characters,” Harris added. “Get them to imagine being in a particular place at a particular time and they will understand it better than restricting themselves entirely to the facts.”

When “Don’t Know Much About History” was first released in 1990, author Kenneth C. Davis viewed his work as an “anti-text” of American history. The original myth buster, Davis deliberately poked holes in the sterile versions of times-gone-by served up by hagiographic historians.

To the delight of his readers, old and young, he proved to be a writer who wasn’t afraid of peppering his prose with a liberal dose of tongue-in-cheek humor as well.

In addition, he took great pains to showcase the lives of ordinary individuals in the populist tradition pioneered by Howard Zinn as well as including the illustrious movers and shakers popularized by Great Man theorists.

As Davis penned in the preface to his 2002 edition, “if nothing else, this little book proved that Americans don’t hate history—they just hate the dull version they got when growing up.”

It is no secret that California, Texas, Florida and 19 other states with statewide schoolbook adoption processes effectively dictate content all across the fruited plain.

The marketplace of ideas that produced “Don’t Know Much About History,” which spent an enviable 35 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and sold 1.3 million copies, seems to play no role in the choice of textbooks for young scholars in America’s public schools.

“The present system of statewide textbook purchasing,” Ravitch exhorts, “has warped the writing, editing and production of textbooks and should be abolished—(leaving individual) teachers free to select the books, anthologies, histories, biographies, software and other materials that will help students meet (academic) standards.”

Why is government so reluctant to let teachers teach? Let’s make “boring” a word that never appears in the same sentence as “history.” How can we make that happen? History always starts with a first rough draft.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More